2001 Conference Proceedings

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OPPORTUNITIES AND OBSTACLES WITH COMPUTERS FOR CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES

Jane Brodin & Peg Lindstrand
Stockholm Institute of Education
Disability and Handicap Research
P-O-Box 47 308, S-100 74, Stockholm, Sweden
Email: Jane.Brodin@lhs.se, Email: Peg.Lindstrand@lhs.se

Introduction

In 1988 the first regional centres for computer-based devices for persons with disabilities were established in Sweden. The first computer play centres for children with disabilities were started in 1992. The main aim was to give children and adolescents with disabilities and not yet able to read and write opportunities to play and to have access to computers. The activities were available for children with all kind of disabilities. Computer play centres can be compared with toy libraries as the philosophy is similar. The stress is on play as a means for child development and the challenge of making play available to parents and children (Brodin & Jonson, 2000).

The staff working at the computer play centres are mainly special educators and/or occupational therapists. Most of them have a good knowledge of children with different types of disabilities from their former jobs in the child habilitation centres. No referral from a medical doctor is needed – just a need for support raised by the parents or the teachers. This means that parents can make an appointment with the staff at the centre and visit the play centre together with their children. At the computer play centre the child can test software and hardware, get supervision on adaptations, rent a computer or borrow special programmes for play, games and training (Brodin & Lindstrand, in press; Lindstrand, 2000).

Research in this field is very limited and few studies have been conducted especially with regard to the opportunities and obstacles to use computers in a constructive way. Previous studies (e.g. Lindstrand, 1999; Sirén, 2000) have shown that:

The computer play centres are non-demanding, amusing service functions offered to families with children and adolescents.

Computers are still regarded as powerful tools and the faith of computers have for many years been highly evaluated as problem solvers. Today a change is visible and the view of computers and the benefits are perhaps more realistic. Technology has no place without pedagogy. Parents often have high expectations on computers as tools for training skills, but not very often for play. There is also a difference between parents’ and professionals’ expectations concerning the benefits of computers and what computers can be used for.

Aim and method

The overall aim of this project was to increase the knowledge of children’s use of computers. The aim was to highlight the expectations and experiences of parents’ of children with disabilities by focusing on opportunities and obstacles in use. The longitudinal project consisted of six sub-studies and were conducted by interviews with parents and staff, with observations of children’s play, and questionnaires answered by parents and staff. This presentation will focus on parents’ and professionals’ expectations and experiences and highlight opportunities and obstacles with computers for children with disabilities. The following areas will be emphasised: computers for child development, language development, communication, play, training, learning and social interaction.

Results

The first study focuses on the staff perspective on children’s use of computers. The study was based on a questionnaire and interviews with 16 staff members. The results showed that computers did not make learning more effective, although that some studies showed that there is no difference between computer-based and traditional education and learning. The results showed that special educators, occupational therapists and pre-school teachers are the most common professions involved. Many of the professionals had experiences of computers from their daily lives mainly for word processing, treatment and as assistive devices. The most common is that mothers visit the computer play centre with their children. According to the staff, parents have expectations on computers as offering opportunities for play and to give the child a joyful activity. Many parents relate the use of computers to the disability of the child although most of them have realistic expectations. The assistants believe that parents have expectations on using computers as a pedagogical tool, but methodology is not mentioned at all. The assistants state that computers can be used as a complement to other activities. One conclusion is that the most important today is to study the importance of computer play for children with disabilities in order to be able to support different areas of development.

The second study focuses on parents’ perspectives and how they have estimated the importance of computers for their children within different areas of development. The result showed that parents had clear and firm opinions concerning the importance of the computer for the development of their children. To develop new technology and new software aimed at reaching the receiver a new way of thinking is needed, where the individual/the family is given a possibility to describe different aspects of what they, themselves, associate with development.

The key to success in implementing any of these strategies is for professionals to empower families. We can see that families are aware of the importance of the computer in different areas of development. Parents are experts on their own children and therefore have the possibility to see and discover factors that can have great importance in the child’s continued use of technological aids. It is important to highlight the fact that as many as 97 of the children, or 54 per cent of the studied population, has more than one disability. What this can imply for children’s play and life situation are important questions.

We asked the parents to evaluate the importance of the computer within different fields of development. The rating scale goes from one to ten, where one means that the computer has had no importance and ten means that the computer has been of great importance for the development. The central point in the line of questioning is that it is the parents themselves, and not the expert, who makes the evaluation. The results of the parents’ answers are found below. Data was also collected by interviews with the parents and by video-observations of children’s play. The parents were also involved in interpretation of the videotapes. In this presentation we will present examples from the videotapes and from the interviews.

Computers for child development

As many as 65 per cent rates the importance of the computer for the over all development of their children points above five, whereas 35 per cent assess the importance of the computer as equivalent to points below five. The role and importance of the computer can be seen from many different angles. This general question – the importance of the computer for the over all development of the child – is answered with high grades. Parents have high expectations on the computer as an assistive device. We can also draw the conclusion that the computer not only is expected to be of good help but is also already experienced as an important aid for the child.

Computers for language development

The data show, concerning the importance of the computer for the development of language that in all 54 per cent of the parents are in favour of the computer. Parents to children with grave or multiple disabilities assess this aspect higher than the rest of the group. 61 per cent give a rating more than five. Parents to children with hearing impairments generally give higher grades than other parents when it comes to the importance of the computer in the development of language. We can assume that the visual support of the computer is of importance in this case.

Computers for communication

The data shows that 52 per cent of all the answers to this question have given rates above five. This implies that the majority believes in the computers ability to help and develop communicative abilities.

In cases where computers are seen as a ”dead” tool, not associated with human communication, the question above will be answered in a certain way. If the computer is seen as a play tool to be used in collective interaction, the answer will be different.

Computers for the development of play

In this area the parents value of the computer shows that 58 per cent give a grade above five. For children, play is an important context for the development of motor, cognitive, communicational and social skills. The results accounted for earlier in this research implied that development of play was placed at the very bottom of the listings of expectations on the computer play centre. The result can be read in different ways. One idea would be that parents already have seen their child develop an ability to play by using the computer in it’s home environment. When the parent and the child go to the computer play centre and meet the expert within the field they expect something different, something ”serious”. Focus is placed on aspects involving training and learning (Sirén, 1999).

Computers for training

Even in this field the majority, 51 per cent, of the parents grade the computer higher than five. In the personal opinions expressed by the parents, expectations on the computer to train the child in a lustful way are often built in. Parents of a seven-year-old boy with delayed speech say: “My boy has learned many things that used to be difficult for him to understand, for example binary oppositions, rhyme, a certain degree of counting etc. He has difficulties in auditory learning. He needs to work with learning through a combination of pictures and hearing. Perfect with the computer.”

According to some of the parents, the computer has helped in building up the children’s self-confidence. This has contributed to possibilities in handling the disability and relations to friends in a more satisfying way.

Social interaction

This is a field that proved to be of less importance to the parents. Only 38 per cent of them gave it a grading above five. To get the opportunity to have fun with one’s child and to be able to laugh at the same things is important. To find the areas where communication through play is found may not be as natural for parents to children with grave disabilities as for other parents. My question in regard to this is if the computer can be a form of “communicational bridge”? Perhaps this is where the expert’s knowledge can be of use in finding the appropriate software and the right technological aid.

It is notable in this study that with the computer play centres fathers are more apt to participate compared to other activities offered. It is of interest to note that the group of parents who estimated the value of the computer as high in the social communication of their children are the parents to children with autism. In this respect, the result justifies the idea of the computer as a “communicational bridge”. The parent and the child find the commonly shared code of communication. Earlier research has reached similar results (e.g. Heimann &Tjus, 1997).

Conclusion

The results presented in this study bring forward a number of new questions to continue with when it comes to the area of children with disabilities and new technology. Technological development creates dreams of a better future for children and youth with disabilities, but it also highlight the difficulties. One important issue for research is to develop and evaluate software for children with different disabilities and to give staff working in pre-schools and schools in-service training in the field. Studies on the efficacy of computers in daily life and in all contexts, i.e. from a holistic perspective of child and family, as well as gender perspectives are challenges for future studies.

Acknowledgement

This project has been supported by the Swedish National Inheritance Fund and the Swedish Transport and Communications Research Board.

References

Brodin, J. & Jonson, U. (2000). Computer play centres for children with disabilities. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 23, 125-128.

Brodin, J. & Lindstrand, P. (in press). Reflections on children with disabilities and computer play. EuroRehab

Heimann, M.& Thus, T. (1997). Datorer och barn med autism [Computers and children with autism]. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

Lindstrand, P. (1999). Datatek. En studie om föräldrars erfarenheter och förväntningar på datatekverksamheten. [Computer play centres. A study on parent’s experiences and expectations on computer activities]. Stenhamra: WRP International.

Lindstrand, P. (2000). Datorer är inte så märkvärdigt! [Computers are not that special!]. Stenhamra: WRP International.

Sirén, N. (2000). Datorn i träningsskolan [Computers in the school for children with severe disabilities]. Stenhamra: WRP International.


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